For more than two decades, Australia’s republican crusade to replace Queen Elizabeth as head of state with one of its own citizens was waged by a handful of “winter soldiers fighting to keep the flame alive”.
Peter FitzSimons, head of the Australian Republican Movement, said the group struggled to regain any momentum after the 1999 referendum to remove the Queen ended in catastrophe.
But even as Anthony Albanese, the new Labor prime minister, lit a beacon this month to celebrate the Queen’s platinum jubilee, Australia was making its boldest move in decades to sever the final colonial links to the British crown.
Albanese, a longtime republican, had appointed Matt Thistlethwaite — one of the movement’s winter soldiers — as Australia’s first minister for the republic.
“It is the first time in the history of Australia that there will be a minister for the Crown charged with removing the Crown,” said FitzSimons. “The government has officially put its weight behind this.”
The new minister for the republic was sworn in by David Hurley, the governor-general and the queen’s representative, and had to pledge his allegiance to the monarch.
That irony was not lost on those who oppose attempts to ditch Australia’s system of constitutional monarchy, which marked the Queen’s birthday on Monday with a public holiday. “I think it’s inappropriate to have a minister in government devoted to a system that doesn’t yet exist. It’s inappropriate in that he’s working in a paradigm that he’s devoted to dismantling,” said Rachel Bailes, a spokesperson with the Australian Monarchist League.
For republicans, the Queen’s platinum jubilee represented a pivotal moment. They think many Australians are more willing to consider change when Queen Elizabeth’s reign ends.
“As the Queen moves into the twilight of her reign, Australians — who have a unique cultural identity — are starting to think about what’s next for us,” said Thistlethwaite. “Once she hands over the reins or passes away, then it will be an opportunity to answer that.”
Bailes, who is 29 and an ardent monarchist since she was 14, thinks that republicans face an uphill task in convincing younger people of the need to change the system. “I don’t meet people my age who call themselves monarchists or republicans,” she said. “There is not a strong motivation for change.”
A poll conducted by Ipsos last year suggested that about a third of Australians wanted a republic, but about 40 per cent opposed it. That was the lowest level of support for a republic since 1979.
At the 1999 referendum, the republicans split viciously over which system should replace the constitutional monarchy and the country voted for the status quo.
“Last time it was death by division,” said FitzSimons, a former rugby union international player. “Those that supported a directly elected president anticipated another referendum in around 18 months. That was almost 25 years ago.”
Crucial to any progress will be deciding how a president would be elected in a putative Australian republic. The ARM, which has already raised A$170,000 (US120,000) for its campaign since Albanese was elected, has advocated a hybrid model in which the public votes for a ceremonial candidate from a shortlist compiled by parliament. Others prefer a directly elected president.
The Labor government is not thinking of putting the issue to a vote until after the next election in 2025 but wants to kick-start a debate about how to get there.
“We need to take our time. I am deeply aware of the pitfalls and divisions that occurred last time,” Thistlethwaite said. He is also in touch with monarchist groups in an attempt to build consensus over how to proceed with a vote.
For republicans the question of whether Australia should have a head of state from its own shores is obvious. The country has strong cultural ties to the UK but counts the US as its strongest security partner in the Indo-Pacific and Asia as the most significant trading region for its economy.
FitzSimons insisted it was a matter of “national dignity” as well as common sense. “Power should rest with an Australian democratically elected authority not with the royal bloodlines from the days of Empire,” he said.
Thistlethwaite notes that 34 of 54 countries in the Commonwealth are now republics after Barbados voted to replace the Queen as head of state last year. “Australia is very much in the minority,” he said.
Monarchist groups argued that the debate should not be about the independence of Australia but about political stability. Philip Benwell, head of the AML, said that the country’s constitutional monarchy provided a safeguard against a system in which a president was beholden to the will of politicians.
“This is not about the monarchy or the individuals. It is about the system that protects our democracy and freedom,” he said. “Constitutional monarchies offer stability and block political interference and constant constitutional change.”
Nonetheless, Thistlethwaite believed that almost a quarter of a century after the last vote, the country was ready for change.
“Australians now see that our constitution doesn’t reflect the truth about our history or modern Australia,” he said. “It doesn’t reflect who we are as a people and it’s time for an update.”